COIN Doctrine Under Fire

The counter-insurgency doctrine is under attack as the White House tries to avoid extended wars and places more focus on the Pacific.

The vaunted counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy promoted by retired Gen. David Petraeus that guided the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has come under renewed and caustic criticism from one of its reluctant practitioners, both as a general and diplomat.

“In short, COIN failed in Afghanistan,” said Karl Eikenberry, the retired Army lieutenant general and former chief of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan who was later U.S. Ambassador to Kabul.

Eikenberry dissected and dismissed the COIN doctrine as applied in Afghanistan in a recent article for Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan.”

Eikenberry also took on what has come to be known as the “COIN Bible” – the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, or FM 3-24, co-authored by then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus and then-Lt. Gen. James Amos, now commandant of the Marine Corps.

The “clear, hold and build” strategy outlined in FM 3-24 called for individual soldiers and Marines with the qualities of a modern-day “Lawrence of Arabia,” versed in languages and attuned to the culture and politics of the host nation, Eikenberry said.

“The typical 21-year-old Marine is hard-pressed to win the heart and mind of his mother-in-law,” Eikenberry said. “Can he really be expected to do the same with an ethnocentric Pashtun tribal elder? Moreover, T. E. Lawrence specialized in inciting revolts, not in state building.”

Without mentioning Eikenberry, Petraeus recently launched a defense of COIN in a lengthy article for “Foreign Policy.” As he has previously, Petraeus argued that the COIN doctrine plus the troop surge in 2007 in Iraq averted civil war and gave the Baghdad government breathing room to build a new democratic state.

Those gains have been erased by a new cycle of violence since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, said Petraeus, who suggested that a new surge was needed – this one carried out by the Iraqis.

“The ideas that enabled progress during the surge are, in many respects, the very ideas that could help Iraq’s leaders reverse the tragic downward spiral that we have seen in recent months,” Petraeus said.

President Obama has made statements that signal a lack of commitment to COIN doctrine and the push  to move the U.S. away from extended land wars in foreign countries.

“We’re turning a page on a decade of war” that involved large ground forces and occupations under COIN, Obama said in signing off on the defense strategy he approved in 2011.

“As we end today’s wars, we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific,” Obama said.

Nation-building and the huge investments in time, troops and money involved to carry it out were no longer affordable in an era of soaring deficits, Obama said.

“We must put our fiscal house in order here at home and renew our long-term economic strength,” Obama said.

However, Pentagon officials have been sensitive not to appear to be tossing COIN into the trash heap following this past decade of war in which it was developed.

“This does not mean that we’re abandoning COIN,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the time. Carter explained that the U.S. military will preserve “the know-how and capability” to undertake counter-insurgency operations, mostly in the National Guard and Reserves.

“Obviously our forces will be somewhat smaller” under the coming budget cuts, Carter said, and the U.S. will be looking to meet future threats “in ways other than invasion and land occupation.”

The COIN doctrine and the FM 3-24 outline of methods for its implementation initially attracted new and unlikely acolytes from the ranks of those who supported the Obama campaign of 2008.

Among them was Samantha Power, now the Obama administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, who viewed COIN as the antidote to what they deemed to be the failed Global War on Terror policies of former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In a glowing review of FM 3-24 for the New York Times, Power wrote that “the most counter-intuitive, as well as the most politically difficult, premise of the manual is that the American military must assume greater risk in order to gather much-needed intelligence and, in the end, achieve greater safety.”

Power said that “the emphasis of the 1990s on force protection is overturned by the assertion of several breathtaking paradoxes:

“Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be; sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is; sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.”

From his perch in Kabul, Eikenberry saw it differently.

“When the Obama administration conducted a comprehensive Afghanistan strategy review in 2009, some military leaders, reinforced by some civilian analysts in influential think tanks, confidently pointed to Field Manual 3-24 as the authoritative playbook for success,” Eikenberry wrote.

But “it was sheer hubris to think that American military personnel without the appropriate language skills and with only a superficial understanding of Afghan culture could, on six- or 12-month tours, somehow deliver to Afghan villages everything asked of them by the COIN manual,” Eikenberry said.

The COIN advocates also assumed that the policy they favored “would be consistent with the political-military approach preferred by Afghan President Hamid Karzai,” who saw the insurgency as a “made in Pakistan” effort, Eikenberry said. The continuing dispute between Karzai and the Americans “made the counterinsurgency campaign increasingly incoherent and difficult to prosecute,” Eikenberry said.

Eikenberry aired his complaints to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a series of 2009 memos that were subsequently leaked to the media, leading to a falling out with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the overall Afghan commander.

Through a spokeswoman, McChrystal declined to comment for this article, but he acknowledged differences with Eikenberry in his book “My Share Of The Task.”

“While I may not have agreed with Karl on all matters, I always valued his analysis and judgment,” McChrystal said. He then went ahead with his version of COIN believing that “we simultaneously had to do more and also do it better.”

McChrystal said “Karl took the position that Karzai was ‘not an adequate strategic partner.’” I did not share Karl’s viewpoint, knowing that a relationship with one person, even the president, in a campaign as complex as the one in Afghanistan would not make or break the entire effort.”

Influential military analyst Fred Kagan, who consulted frequently with McChrystal and Petraeus while they were in uniform, said he had not read Eikenberry’s article but argued that Eikenberry had “put himself in a difficult logical position” by criticizing COIN in Afghanistan.

“Surely, he doesn’t think that an insurgency doesn’t require a counterinsurgency strategy,” said Kagan, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The deputy commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command indicated last week that the debates on COIN and how it was used were intellectual exercises with little value as the military prepares for future challenges.

“Things really are different as we come out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Army Lt. Gen. Keith Walker said at a forum sponsored by the DefenseOne website.

COIN involved major investments in time and money, and consequently Iraq and Afghanistan “were characterized by a large checkbook,” Walker said. “You don’t have a large checkbook” in the current era of budget cuts and shrinking forces, Walker said.

About the Author

Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for He can be reached at